Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Do Students Email Professors Too Much?

In a widely circulated New York Times article this week, reporter Jonathan Glater notes:

At colleges and universities nationwide, e-mail has made professors much more approachable. But many say it has made them too accessible, erasing boundaries that traditionally kept students at a healthy distance.

He quotes professors at big universities -- Syracuse, William and Mary, Georgetown, UC Davis, MIT -- who are distressed that students turn to them for information, directions, and advice. The Times, not surprisingly, found a way to make this a story about fear – the fear that professors have of offending the students who will be evaluating them.

I am glad to report that the professors quoted in the story who are from small teaching colleges saw these informal email communications as a teaching opportunity. An Amherst professor saw it as feedback about blind spots in his course, while a Pomona teacher took it as a chance to teach etiquette and power relations in communication.

What this story says to me is that this generation of students relate to their professors in the same close and informal way that they relate to their parents. Many people have noted that the current Millennial generation of young people have close relations with their parents – much closer than was the norm for the Gen Xers and Baby Boomers who are now their professors. Students today do write emails at all hours asking and telling things that the "never trust anyone over 30" generation would not have dreamed of sending to their teachers. I do not think that this means students today are pushy consumers.

Students today are trusting children. We teachers should honor, serve, and teach to that trust.


Anonymous said...

I realized we had moved into a different communication paradigm the day my then-high school daughter came begging me to relinquish the computer so she could instant message a friend. We have a cable connection, so the phone was free, but it never dawned on her to use the PHONE as a means of communication. She actually attended a large university and found email to be a way to connect with her professors (helpfully, I might add) in a way the she (as a strong introvert) might have found more intimidating in that large setting. While I can see that it could be misused, I'm grateful for the greater opportunities my children at smaller colleges have to communicate with their professors and am glad to know that there are also professors who see it as a valueable communications - and teaching - tool.

Anonymous said...

“who are distressed that students turn to them for information, directions, and advice.”

Had I not been taught by remarkable professors who kept an open door policy (that went for front doors as well as office doors) I can safely say that I would not be half the person I am today.

This conversation is especially distressing when taking into account first generation college students. Many young adults who are the first in their families to go to college don’t know what being college student/graduate entails. It helps a great deal to have a body of college graduates, who are already in a position of authority, interact with these students to give them a better idea of what it means to be “educated.” It sounds like those who are distressed by their students’ e-mails are uninterested in making a real difference in their students life. To paraphrase Charles Barkley “I’m a professor, not a role model.”

I submit that the best educators are both.

Anonymous said...

Having an open office door and an open front door show the difference between colleges who indoctrinate and colleges whose priority is student learning.

Limiting the opportunity to question a professor, whether out of confusion or out of disagreement, is profoundly damaging to the free exchange and debate of ideas. If professors are truly interested in the free exchange of ideas, then they will welcome any form of contact outside the class which they have the privilege of being offered.

Centre, and in-particular, Dr. Gruntled Center, is the epitome of the open door policy. His photo should be put on Wikipedia beside open door policy, because it seems to me that he is truly interested in getting students to think, critically analyze, to really dig in, instead of regurgitating doctrine that comes out of the mouth of some high and mighty professor. And yet when I think about it, if anyone deserves to be that High and Mighty professor, it's Dr. Gruntled Center, I mean who has three masters and a PhD from Yale?

So, in reality, it may be the role models who are the real professors.

Anonymous said...

As a former student of Centre College and a current graduate student at Georgetown University, one of the learning institutions quoted in this article, I want to point out that there is indeed a big difference between large and small colleges. Professors at large universities must deal with a much larger volume of email from their students than those at smaller colleges. I read this article the day it came out, and discussed it in my ethics class later the same week. I did not get the sense from this article that professors were, "distressed that students turn to them for information, directions, and advice," but rather annoyed at some students who were crossing the line in certain emails. For example, the student that emailed a faculty member for advice on which school supplies she should purchase.

I loved the accessibility of the professors at Centre and chose Centre precisely for that reason, but I would not mischaracterize the purpose of the NYT article or the faculty members at the schools mentioned in the article. I've been at Georgetown for two years now, albeit, as a graduate student, but I have never once felt as though I am limited in accessing time or resources from my professors.

Gruntled said...

I went to a small liberal arts college like Centre. When I was visiting Yale as a prospective graduate student, my Swarthmore professors had to warn me not to call Yale professors at home, as we were accustomed to do in college. This was before email, and perhaps a call at home is more intrusive, but I think the contrast between the two kinds of professor-student relations still holds. Your experience as a graduate may be different from that of undergraduates, even at a relatively small and humane university like Georgetown.